By using one of the world’s deadliest known toxins to carry off a high-profile assassination in Malaysia, North Korea sent a message to the world that it has two types of weapons of mass destruction – nuclear bombs and the most ghastly of chemical weapons.
“The point was made,” said Raymond Zilinskas, director of the chemical and biological nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in California.
“The point being that not only do they have one type of weapons of mass destruction, which are nuclear, but they also have a second type, which is the chemical,” Zilinskas said.
Malaysia’s inspector general of police, Khalid Abu Bakar, confirmed Friday that the chemical agent VX was found on swabs from the eyes and face of Kim Jong Nam, the outcast half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Two women approached the elder Kim in a brazen daylight assault in Kuala Lumpur’s airport Feb. 13 as he headed to his home in Macau, the tourist and gambling hub near Hong Kong.
The United Nations categorizes VX, which English scientists discovered in 1955, as a chemical weapon of mass destruction and banned its use under a 1993 treaty.
Tasteless and odorless, VX has an amber-like color and is the consistency of motor oil. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls it “the most potent of all nerve agents,” and says victims can die within minutes from convulsions and respiratory failure.
The announcement that VX was used in a crowded airport generated alarm in Malaysia and around the world. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons called any use of VX “deeply disturbing” and said it “stands ready to provide expertise” to Malaysia. Teams are expected to sweep the airport Sunday for any remaining toxic chemicals, Reuters reported.
North Korea has long been suspected of producing chemical weapons but proof has been elusive.
Now, we know they have it.
Raymond Zilinskas, former UN weapons inspector
“Now we know they have it,” said Zilinskas. “This might have been actually a field exercise for using (it), how does their VX work?”
North Korea’s nuclear potential has been apparent since 2006, when it conducted its first nuclear test. The nation has since conducted four more tests, most recently last September. It is believed to have enough fissile material for up to 10 nuclear bombs.
The size of its chemical weapons arsenal is unknown.
“We have no idea whether or not they have laboratory quantities – like grams or kilograms – or if they have a factory set up somewhere where they have tons,” Zilinskas said.
One of the two young women suspected in the attack, 25-year-old Indonesian Siti Aishah, told an Indonesian diplomat that she was paid the equivalent of $90 but said she didn’t know she was applying poison to Kim’s face, the Straits Times newspaper reported Saturday.
Her alleged accomplice, a Vietnamese woman, Doan Thi Huong, was also in custody.
Malaysia’s police chief said one of the two women fell ill after the attack, and vomited. But it remained unclear how assailants would have handled the fatal toxin without dying themselves.
If these assassins had VX on their hands, they would be dead in a few minutes.
Raymond Zilinskas, Middlebury Institute of International Studies
“If these assassins had VX on their hands, they would be dead in a few minutes,” said Zilinskas, who served as a U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq in 1994.
Zilinskas said each of the two assailants probably carried a less-toxic component of VX. “They smeared it on his face, and had the reaction between the two of them produce the VX. It probably wasn’t real efficient but enough to kill him in 15 minutes,” he said.
“Then, as quickly as they could, they went off to the toilet and washed their hands off,” he suggested.
In other notorious cases of hit teams assassinating enemies of a state overseas, a Bulgarian hit unit in 1978 stabbed Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov in the thigh with an umbrella as he waited for a bus on London’s Waterloo Bridge, injecting a ricin pellet into him that caused his death in three days.
More recently, a former intelligence agent of the Russian federal security service, Alexander Litvinenko, fell ill in November 2006 in London, the apparent victim of a poisoning by radioactive polonium-210 that was immersed in a cup of tea. Litvinenko had fled to Britain and was a fierce critic of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.